“You’re the next generation,” the drunken man in the back seat of the Lyft ride repeated. This is a strange thing to say to someone who turned 40 in November, but I thanked him because I knew what he was getting at—that I was what is commonly referred to as a “cool teacher,” the kind who used to sing in a punk band and wears Vans to class, and that those old, white-haired, ruler-waving instructors from the past were just that: a thing of the past.
It’s true—I used to sing in a punk band and I wear Vans to class. And when I can’t get a projector to work or the eraser doesn’t completely remove the previous instructor’s writing, a cuss word might fall from my mouth. I’ve tried to stop doing this, which is very uncool of me, but—and I say this not as an excuse but as an actual reason—using four-letter words is an effective way to get students’ attention. Besides, curse words show I’m a “real” person and being a “real” person is a good way to connect with a room full of people who are 20 years younger than you.
Also, that’s the way I talk. Because I’m cool.
But am I the next generation of teachers? There’s a scene in “Return of the Jedi” in which Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that, from a certain point of view, Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered” Anakin Skywalker. And, from a certain perspective, even though I am 40, I suppose that answer could be “yes.”
I had a “cool” teacher at Los Angeles Harbor College. He taught speech class, where I gave presentations about why America should switch to a four-day workweek and the importance of Jack Kerouac on American literature. In hindsight, I realize this second speech couldn’t have been good: I was 19 and had read-only “On the Road,” but I must have made an impression because my instructor booked me a counseling appointment because he thought I was a good student. I probably looked uncomfortable when he told me this, but internally I was flattered he noticed me in the sea of 20-ish students in class. And, like a fool, I never saw a counselor. No good reason, I just didn’t go because when I was 19 I “just” didn’t do anything that required showing confidence in myself.
He was one of the good ones, that teacher, and thinking about him makes me realize that the drunk Lyft passenger was wrong. I’m not part of the “next” generation of teachers. The good ones have always been there.
When I was a student, I sat in the back corner in every class because I wanted to be invisible. Head down, I would walk the rows of chairs hoping no one saw me or would learn my name. Including the instructors. Rather than face this glaring self-esteem issue, I told myself that isolation was cool, that I knew something no one else in those classes knew.
I was wrong.
My speech teacher saw my potential, but I didn’t have the tools to accept his offer. Now, I do everything I can to ensure my students won’t make the mistakes I made. I teach English and journalism and, officially, part of my job is to lecture about MLA format and Associated Press style. The part that’s not on my syllabi is the part where I’m teaching my students how it feels to have someone tell them “yes” when everything inside them is saying “no.” Maybe there’s no way to be a cool math teacher because, regardless of who’s standing in front of the class, two plus two equals four. But I’m not a math teacher. I teach subjects that allow students to tell me that two plus two equals 12 as long as they can support that argument. In my English classes, I remind students that there are no wrong answers, just unsupported thesis statements. In my journalism classes, I let my students pitch ideas for stories they want to cover. I’ve made something that resembles a career by writing about tempeh and cashews, and that freedom to write whatever I want is partially responsible for how I overcame my self-esteem issues. If I’m a cool teacher, it’s because I know how good it feels to write the words you can’t say with your mouth.
So, yeah, I teach English and journalism, but my favorite parts aren’t the love of topic sentences or kicker quotes. It’s the “a-ha” moment when a student gets something for the first time. It’s having a student leave on the final day of the semester with a smile after telling me on the first day of the semester that they’re not a good writer. It’s having a student tell me that they go home and say “didja know…” to their moms, dads, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, whomever. That’s the moment when I know I’ve done my job.
And it feels pretty cool.